Lieutenant General Sheridan
It is sometimes said that circumstances make the man; but there must be
something in the man, or circumstances, however favorable, cannot
develop it. A poor lad, born of Irish parents in the little western town
of Somerset, Ohio, working at twenty-four dollars a year, would never
have come to the lieutenant-generalship of the United States, unless
there was something noteworthy in the lad himself.
Philip Henry Sheridan, a generous, active boy, after having studied
arithmetic, geography, and spelling at the village school, began to work
in a country store in 1843, at the early age of twelve, earning fifty
cents a week, fortunately, still keeping his home with his mother. He
was fond of books, especially of military history and biography; and
when he read of battles, he had dreams of one day being a great soldier.
Probably the keeper of the store where Philip worked, and his boyish
companions, thought these dreams useless air-castles.
After some months, quickness and attention to business won a better
position for him, where he obtained one dollar and a half a week. So
useful had he become, that at seventeen he acted as bookkeeper and
manager of quite a business for the munificent wages of three dollars a
He had not forgotten his soldier ambition, and applied to the member of
Congress from his county, Perry, for appointment to West Point. Hon.
Thomas Ritchey was pleased with the boy's determination and energy, and
though most of these places were given to those whose fathers had served
in the Mexican War, Philip was not forgotten. He took a preliminary
examination in the common branches, and much to his surprise, received
the appointment. Feeling greatly his need of more knowledge, his
room-mate, Henry W. Slocum, afterward a major-general, assisted him in
algebra and geometry. The two boys would hang blankets at the windows of
their room, and study after the usual limit for the putting out of
lights and retiring.
Graduating in 1853, he was made second lieutenant in the United States
Infantry, and assigned to Fort Duncan on the western boundary of Texas,
which at that time seemed wellnigh out of the world. Here he came much
in contact with the Apache and Comanche Indians, warlike and independent
One day, as Sheridan was outside the fort with two other men, a band of
Indians swooped down upon them. The chief jumped from his horse to seize
his prisoners, when Sheridan instantly sprang upon the animal's back,
and galloped to Fort Duncan. Hastily summoning his troops, he rushed
back to save his two friends. The enraged chief sprang toward him, when
a ball from Sheridan's rifle laid him dead upon the ground. His ready
thought had saved his own life and that of his friends.
Two years later he was made first lieutenant, and sent to Oregon as
escort to an expedition surveying for a branch of the Pacific Railway.
The region was wild and almost unknown, yet beautiful and full of
interest. This life must have seemed inspiring compared with the quiet
of the Somerset store.
Chosen very soon to take charge of an Indian campaign, his fearlessness,
his quick decision and cautiousness as well, made him a valuable leader.
The Indians could endure hardships; so could Sheridan. Sometimes he
carried his food for two weeks in his blanket, slung over his shoulder,
and made the ground his bed at night. The Indians could scale rocks and
mountains; so could the young officer.
A severe encounter took place at the Cascades, on the Columbia River,
April 28, 1856, where, by getting in the rear of the Indians, he
completely vanquished them. For this strategy, he was especially
commended by Lieutenant-General Scott. However, he won the confidence of
the Indian tribes for probity and honesty in his dealings with them.
When the Civil War began, he was eager to help the cause of the Union,
and in 1861 was made captain and chief quartermaster in south-western
Missouri, on the staff of Major-General Curtis. He was quiet and
unassuming, accurate in business matters, and thoroughly courteous.
Perhaps now that he had learned more of army life by nine and a half
years of service, he was less sanguine of high renown than in his boyish
days; for he told a friend that "he was the sixty-fourth captain on the
list, and with the chances of war, thought he might soon be major."
It required executive ability to provide for the subsistence of a great
army, but Sheridan organized his depots of supplies and transportation
trains with economy and wisdom, for the brave men who fought under
Sigel. With a high sense of honor, Sheridan objected to the taking of
any private property from the enemy, for self-aggrandizement, as was the
case with some officers, and asked to be relieved from his present
Fortunately he was appointed on the staff of General Halleck in
Tennessee, a man who soon learned the faithfulness and ability of his
captain; and when the Governor of Michigan asked for a good colonel for
the Second Michigan Cavalry, Sheridan was chosen. After sharing in
several engagements around Corinth, he was attacked July 1, 1862, at
Booneville, by a force of nine regiments, numbering nearly five thousand
men. He had but two regiments! What could he do? Selecting ninety of his
best men, armed with guns and sabres, he sent them four miles around a
curve to attack the enemy's rear, and promised to attack at the same
time in front. When the moment came, he rushed upon the foe as though he
had an immense army at his back, while the handful of men in the rear
charged with drawn sabres. The Confederates were thrown into confusion,
and, panic-stricken, rushed from the field, leaving guns, knapsacks, and
coats behind them. Sheridan chased them for twenty miles.
This deed of valor won the admiration of General Grant, who commended
him to the War Department for promotion. He was at once made
brigadier-general. Perhaps the boyish dreams of being a great soldier
would not turn out to be air-castles after all. Men love to fight under
a man who knows what to do in an emergency, and Sheridan's men, who
called him "Little Phil," had the greatest faith in him.
In the fall, he was needed to defend Louisville against General Bragg.
This Confederate officer had been told that he would find recruits and
supplies in abundance if he would come to Kentucky. He came therefore,
bringing arms for twenty thousand men, but was greatly disappointed to
find that not half that number were willing to cast in their lot with
the Secessionists. General Buell, of the Union army, received, on the
contrary, over twenty thousand new soldiers here. Bragg prepared to
leave the State, sending his provision train ahead, and made a stand at
Perryville, Kentucky. Here Sheridan played "a distinguished part,
holding the key of the Union position, and resisting the onsets of the
enemy again and again, with great bravery and skill, driving them at
last from the open ground in front by a bayonet charge. The loss in
Sheridan's division in killed and wounded was over four hundred, but his
generalship had saved the army from defeat."
Bragg determined now to make one great effort to hold Tennessee, and
Dec. 31, 1862, gave battle at Stone River, near Murfreesboro'. General
Rosecrans had succeeded Buell as commander of the Army of the
Cumberland. Being a Romanist, high mass was celebrated in his tent just
before the battle, the officers, booted and spurred, standing outside
with heads uncovered. The conflict began on the right wing, the enemy
advancing six lines deep. Our troops were mowed down as by a scythe.
Sheridan sustained four attacks of the enemy, and four times repulsed
them, swinging his hat or his sword, as he rode among his men, and
changing his front under fire, till, his ammunition exhausted, he
brought out his shattered forces in close column, with colors flying.
Pointing sadly to them, he said to Rosecrans, "Here is all that are
left, General. My loss is seventeen hundred and ninety-six,--my three
brigade commanders killed, and sixty-nine other officers; in all
seventy-two officers killed and wounded." The men said proudly, "We came
out of the battle with compact ranks and empty cartridge-boxes!"
Even after this Sheridan recaptured two pieces of artillery, and routed
the same men who had driven him. For noble conduct on the field he was
made major-general of volunteers.
General Rosecrans says of him in his official report, "At Stone River he
won universal admiration. Upon being flanked and compelled to retire, he
withdrew his command more than a mile, under a terrible fire, in
remarkable order, at the same time inflicting the severest punishment
upon the foe. The constancy and steadfastness of his troops on the 31st
of December enabled the reserve to reach the right of our army in time
to turn the tide of battle, and changed a threatened rout into a
General Rosecrans showed himself dauntless in courage. When a shell took
off the head of his faithful staff-officer, Garesche, riding by his
side, to whom he was most tenderly attached, he only said, "I am very
sorry; we cannot help it. This battle must be won." Dashing up to a
regiment lying on the ground waiting to be called into action, he said,
while shot and shell were whizzing furiously around him, "Men, do you
wish to know how to be safe? Shoot low. But do you wish to know how to
be safest of all? Give them a blizzard and then charge with cold steel!
Forward, men, and show what you are made of!"
After the day's bloody battle, the troops lay all night on the cold
ground where they had fought. "When," says the heroic General Rousseau,
"I saw them parch corn over a few little coals into which they were
permitted to blow a spark of life; when they carved steak from the loins
of a horse which had been killed in battle, and ate, not simply without
murmuring, but made merry over their distress, tears involuntarily
rolled from my eyes."
At midnight it rained upon the soldiers, and the fields became masses of
mud; yet before daylight they stood at their guns. "On the third day,"
says Rosecrans, "the firing was terrific and the havoc terrible. The
enemy retreated more rapidly than they had advanced. In forty minutes
they lost two thousand men." All that night the Federals worked to
entrench the front of the army. Saturday hundreds of wounded lay in the
mud and rain, as the enemy had destroyed so many of our hospital tents.
On Sunday morning it was found that the Confederates had departed,
leaving twenty-five hundred of their wounded in Murfreesboro' for us to
take care of. Burial parties were now sent out to inter the dead. The
Union loss in killed and wounded was eight thousand seven hundred and
seventy-eight; the enemy's loss ten thousand one hundred and
Sheridan's next heavy fighting was at Chickamauga. The battle was begun
by Bragg on Sept. 19, 1863. The right of our army had been broken to
pieces, but General Thomas, the idol of his men, stood on the left like
a rock, Sheridan assisting, and refused to be driven from the field.
General Henry M. Cist, in his "Army of the Cumberland" says, "There is
nothing finer in history than Thomas at Chickamauga." Sheridan lost over
one-third of his four thousand men and ninety-six officers. The Federal
loss was over sixteen thousand; the Confederate, over twenty thousand.
There were heroic deeds on this as on every battle-field. When a
division of the Reserve Corps--brave men they were, too--wavered under
the storm of lead, General James B. Steedman rode up, and taking the
flag from the color-bearer, cried out, "Go back, boys, go back, but the
Flag can't go with you!" and dashed into the fight. The men rallied,
closed their column, and fought bravely to the death. Even the
drummer-boy, Johnny Clem, from Newark, Ohio, ten years old, near the
close of the battle, when one of Longstreet's colonels rode up, and with
an oath commanded him to surrender, sent a bullet through the officer's
heart. Rosecrans, made him a sergeant, and the daughter of Secretary
Chase gave him a silver medal.
Two months later, the battle of Chattanooga redeemed the defeat of
Chickamauga. Near the town rises Lookout Mountain, abrupt, rocky cliffs
twenty-four hundred feet above the level of the sea, and Missionary
Ridge, both of which were held by the enemy. On Nov. 24, Lookout was
stormed and carried by General Hooker in the "Battle above the Clouds."
On the following day Missionary Ridge was to be assaulted. Sheridan held
the extreme left for General Thomas. Before him was a wood, then an open
plain, several hundred yards to the enemy's rifle-pits; and then beyond,
five hundred yards covered with rocks and fallen timber to the crest,
where were Bragg's heaviest breastworks. At three o'clock in the
afternoon the signal to advance--six guns fired at intervals of two
seconds--was given. As Sheridan shouted, "Remember Chickamauga!" the men
dashed over the plain at double-quick, their glittering bayonets ready
for deadly work. Says Benjamin F. Taylor, who was an eye-witness, "Never
halting, never faltering, they charged up to the first rifle-pits with a
cheer, forked out the rebels with their bayonets, and lay there panting
for breath. If the thunder of guns had been terrible, it was now growing
sublime. It was rifles and musketry; it was grape and canister; it was
shell and shrapnel. Mission Ridge was volcanic; a thousand torrents of
red poured over its brink and rushed together to its base.
"They dash out a little way, and then slacken; they creep up, hand over
hand, loading and firing, and wavering and halting, from the first line
of works to the second; they burst into a charge with a cheer, and go
over it. Sheets of flame baptize them; plunging shot tear away comrades
on left and right; it is no longer shoulder to shoulder; it is God for
us all! Under tree-trunks, among rocks, stumbling over the dead,
struggling with the living, facing the steady fire of eight thousand
infantry, they wrestle with the Ridge.... Things are growing desperate
up aloft; the rebels tumble rocks upon the rising line; they light the
fusees and roll shells down the steep; they load the guns with handfuls
of cartridges in their haste; and as if there were powder in the word,
they shout 'Chickamauga' down upon the mounters. But it would not all
do, and just as the sun, weary of the scene, was sinking out of sight,
with magnificent bursts all along the line, the advance surged over the
crest, and in a minute those flags fluttered along the fringe where
fifty rebel guns were, kennelled.... Men flung themselves exhausted upon
the ground. They laughed and wept, shook hands, embraced; turned round,
and did all four over again. It was as wild as a carnival."
Grant had given the order for taking the first line of rifle-pits only,
but the men, first one regiment and then another, swept up the hill,
determined to be the first to plant the colors there. "When I saw those
flags go up," said Sheridan afterward, "I knew we should carry the
ridge, and I took the responsibility." Sheridan's horse was shot under
him, after which he led the assault on foot. Over twelve hundred men
made Missionary Ridge sacred to liberty by their blood.
All seemed heroes on that day. One poor fellow, with his shoulder
shattered, lay beside a rock. Two comrades halted to bear him to the
rear, when he said, "Don't stop for me; I'm of no account; for GOD'S
sake, push right up with the boys!" and on they went, to help scale the
When the men were seen going up the hill, Grant asked by whose orders
that was done? "It is all right if it turns out all right," he said;
"but if not, some one will suffer." But it turned out all right, and
Grant knew thereafter how fully he could trust Sheridan.
The following spring Sheridan was placed by Grant in command of the
cavalry of the Army of the Potomac, numbering nearly twelve thousand
men. Here he was to add to his fame in the great battles of the
Shenandoah Valley. From May to August Sheridan lost over five thousand
men in killed and wounded, in smaller battles as he protected Grant's
flank while he moved his forces to the James River, or in cutting off
Lee's supplies. Meantime General Early had been spreading terror by his
attempt to take Washington, thus hoping also to withdraw Grant's
attention from Lee at Richmond.
The time had come for decisive action. Grant's orders were, "Put
yourself south of the enemy and follow him to the death. I feel every
confidence that you will do the best, and will leave you as far as
possible to act on your own judgment, and not embarrass you with orders
and instructions." About the middle of September Grant visited Sheridan
with a plan of battle for him in his pocket, but he said afterward, "I
saw that there were but two words of instruction necessary, 'Go in.' The
result was such that I have never since deemed it necessary to visit
General Sheridan before giving him orders."
The battle of Opequan was fought Sept. 19, 1864, Early being completely
routed and losing about four thousand men, five pieces of artillery, and
nine army flags, with an equal loss of men by the Federals. The fight
was a bitter one from morning till evening, a regiment like the One
Hundred and Fourteenth New York going into the battle with one hundred
and eighty men, and coming out with forty, their dead piled one above
another! Sheridan at first stood a little to the rear, so that he might
calmly direct the battle; but at last, swinging his sword, and
exclaiming, "I can't stand this!" he rode into the conflict. The next
day he telegraphed to Edwin M. Stanton, Secretary of War, "We have just
sent them whirling through Winchester, and we are after them to-morrow.
This army behaved splendidly."
This battle quickened the hope and courage of the North, who begun to
see the end of the devastating war. "Whirling through Winchester" was
reported all over the land. Abraham Lincoln telegraphed, "Have just
heard of your great victory. God bless you all, officers and men!
Strongly inclined to come up and see you." Grant ordered each of his
two Richmond armies to fire a salute of one hundred guns.
The next day Sheridan passed on after Early, and gave battle at Fisher's
Hill, the Confederates losing sixteen guns and eleven hundred prisoners,
besides killed and wounded. Many of these belonged to Stonewall
Jackson's corps, and were the flower of the Southern army. "Keep on,"
said Grant, "and your good work will cause the fall of Richmond."
Secretary Stanton ordered one hundred guns to be fired by various
generals, fifteen hundred guns in all, for Fisher's Hill. Early was now
so thoroughly beaten, that the Richmond mob wrote on the guns forwarded
to him by the South the satirical sentence, "General Sheridan, care of
General Early!" Grant's orders were now to lay waste the valley, so that
Lee might have no base of supplies. Over two thousand barns filled with
grain, over seventy mills, besides bridges and railroads were burned,
and seven thousand cattle and sheep appropriated by the Union army. Such
destruction seemed pitiful, but if the war was thereby shortened, as it
doubtless was, then the saving of bloodshed was a blessing.
Oct. 15 Sheridan was summoned to Washington for consultation. Early,
learning his absence, and having been reinforced by twelve thousand
troops, decided at once to give battle at Cedar Creek. His army marched
at midnight, canteens being left in camp, lest they make a noise. At
daybreak, Oct. 19, with the well-known "rebel yell" the enemy rushed
upon the sleeping camps of the Union army. Nearly a thousand of our men
were taken prisoners, and eighteen guns. A panic ensued, and in utter
confusion, though there was some brave fighting, our troops fell back to
the rear. Sheridan, on his way from Washington, had slept at Winchester
that night, twenty miles away. At nine o'clock he rode out of the town
on his splendid black horse, unconscious of danger to his army. Soon the
sound of battle was heard, and not a mile away he met the fugitives. He
at once ordered some troops to stop the stragglers, and rushed on to the
front as swiftly as his foaming steed could carry him, swinging his hat,
and shouting, "Face the other way, boys! face the other way! If I had
been here, boys, this never should have happened." Meeting a colonel who
said, "The army is whipped," he replied, "You are, but the army isn't!"
Rude breastworks of stones, rocks, and trees were thrown up. Then came
desperate fighting, and then the triumphant charge. The first line was
carried, and then the second, Sheridan leading a brigade in person.
Early's army was thoroughly routed. The captured guns were all retaken,
besides twenty-four pieces of artillery and sixteen hundred prisoners.
Early reported eighteen hundred killed and wounded.
Again the whole North rejoiced over this victory. Sheridan was made a
major-general in the regular army "for the personal gallantry, military
skill and just confidence in the courage and gallantry of your troops
displayed by you on the 19th day of October at Cedar Run," said Lincoln,
"whereby, under the blessing of Providence, your routed army was
reorganized, a great national disaster averted, and a brilliant victory
achieved over the rebels for the third time in pitched battle within
thirty days." General Grant wrote from City Point, "Turning what bid
fair to be a disaster into a glorious victory stamps Sheridan what I
always thought him, one of the ablest of generals."
Well wrote Thomas Buchanan Read in that immortal poem, "Sheridan's
"Hurrah! hurrah for Sheridan!
Hurrah! hurrah for horse and man!
And when their statues are placed on high,
Under the dome of the Union sky,
The American soldier's Temple of Fame,
There with the glorious General's name,
Be it said in letters both bold and bright,
'Here is the steed that saved the day,
By carrying Sheridan into the fight
From Winchester, twenty miles away!'"
The noble animal died in Chicago, October, 1878.
"In eleven weeks," says General Adam Badeau, "Sheridan had taken
thirteen thousand prisoners, forty-nine battle flags, and sixty guns,
besides recapturing eighteen cannon at Cedar Creek. He must besides have
killed and wounded at least nine thousand men, so that he destroyed for
the enemy twenty-two thousand soldiers."
And now the only work remaining was to join Grant at Richmond in his
capture of Lee. He had passed the winter near Winchester, and now having
crossed the James River, April 1, 1865, was attacked by General Pickett
at Five Forks. After a severe engagement about five thousand prisoners
were taken by Sheridan, with thirteen colors and six guns. His magnetic
influence over his men is shown by an incident narrated by General
Badeau. "At the battle of Five Forks, a soldier, wounded under his eyes,
stumbled and was falling to the rear, but Sheridan cried, 'Never mind,
my man; there's no harm done!' and the soldier went on with a bullet in
his brain, till he dropped dead on the field."
From here he pushed on to Appomattox Court House, where he headed Lee's
army, and waited for Grant to come up. Richmond had surrendered to Grant
on the morning of April 3. On the 7th of April Grant wrote to Lee, "The
result of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further
resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this
struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from
myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood, by asking
you to surrender that portion of the Confederate States Army known as
the Army of Northern Virginia." Lee replied, "Though not entertaining
the opinion you express on the hopelessness of further resistance on the
part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to
avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your
proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its
surrender." The reply was the only one that could be given. "The terms
upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying
down their arms they will hasten that most desirable event, save
thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet
At one o'clock, April 9, 1865, the two able generals met, and at four it
was announced that the Army of Northern Virginia, with over twenty-eight
thousand men, had surrendered to the Army of the Potomac. Memorable day!
that brought peace to a nation tired of the horrors of war. In July,
Sheridan assumed command of the Military Division of the Gulf. Ten years
later, June 3, 1875, when he was forty-four years old, he married Miss
Irene Rucker, the daughter of General D. H. Rucker, for years his
friend. She is a fine linguist, and a charming woman. Their home in
Chicago has many souvenirs of war times, and tokens of appreciation from
those who realize General Sheridan's great services to his country.
He was made Lieutenant-General, March 4, 1869, and when General Sherman
retired from the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Nov. 1,
1883, Sheridan moved to Washington, to take his place. The office of
"Lieutenant-General" expires with General Sheridan, he being the last of
our three great and famous generals,--Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. In
this latter city he has a home purchased by thirty-one of his leading
friends from Chicago. He is devoted to his wife and children, honest,
upright, and manly, and deserves the honors he has won.
* * * * *
General Sheridan was taken ill of heart disease about the middle of May,
1888. After three months, he died at Nonquitt, Mass., near the ocean, at
twenty minutes past ten on the evening of August 5, 1888. He left a wife
and four children, a girl of eight, a boy of six, and twin daughters of
four. After lying in state at Washington, he was buried with military
honors at Arlington Heights, on Saturday, August 11, in the midst of